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Debunking Myths: Tribes get money. Homelessness shouldn’t be a problem.  

January 23, 2023


Today, American Indians/Alaska Natives (AI/AN) experience the second highest rate of homelessness in the U.S. Our recent exploration of the impacts of homelessness on Native peoples lends perspective to the complex cause-and-effect relationship behind this crisis, and many of the same factors play into the myth of adequate funding. 

Yet anyone unfamiliar with the data might understandably look at it like this: The federal government is obligated to right the wrongs of decades of historical traumas, so funding sufficient to end this emergency must reach the tribes. That is not true for several reasons. 

Federal funding for tribal housing assistance has stagnated since 1998 

A lack of affordable housing is directly tied to higher rates of homelessness on tribal lands. But despite helpful increases in the past few years, Indian Housing Block Grant (IHBG) funding levels have remained largely static in the quarter-century following its start in 1998. Because the IHBG is the primary source of funding by which tribes provide affordable housing on reservations, an inadequate contribution translates directly to a critical housing shortage.  

An estimated 68,000 new homes are needed to eliminate overcrowding and replace inadequate housing on reservations – and an increase in population since that data was collected has likely worsened the shortage. 

High Inflation and increasing reservation populations play a role 

Though the dollar amount of IHBG funding has increased slightly over time, inflation has taken a toll in the 25 years since it began, eating away at the value of the contribution. It now represents only a fraction of the 1998 value—a serious impact considering that even at full 1998 value, these dollars did not meet the demand for affordable housing. 

Meanwhile, reservation populations have increased since 1998, significantly lowering the per capita allocation of IHBG funding. In the period from 1999 to 2014, the per capita amount decreased over 33% – with real consequences.  

Other factors combine to intensify the crisis 

Barriers to development including limited private investment, low-functioning housing markets, and poverty mean that Native communities face some of the worst housing and living conditions in the United States. In nearly every social, health, and economic indicator, AI/AN people rank at or near the bottom. According to the latest counts, 1 in 4 AI/AN people were living below the poverty line, almost twice the national rate, yet only 12% of households said they were in assisted housing. 

Much of the existing housing is insufficient and overcrowded. According to a 2017 study, homes in tribal areas had deficiencies that far exceeded the national rates of 1-2%. 

And among AI/AN households in tribal areas, 16% are overcrowded, compared to 2% nationally. The practice of  “doubling up” – living with friends or family despite overcrowding – masks literal homelessness and skews the data that government agencies rely on to allocate funding. 

The result? Tribal housing assistance is in desperate need of an overhaul and an infusion of dollars. 

Even if funding levels rise sufficiently to meet the affordable housing crisis head on, how much time will pass before conditions measurably improve on tribal lands? Construction is a slow process and, when tied to grant funding, often hindered by red tape that can add years to a project. 

The tribes need solutions now, not five years from now. Nearly 80% of Native people no longer live on reservations, due in large part to living conditions there. This leaves many feeling disconnected from their culture and caught between two worlds, with no sense of belonging in either. Understanding this – and the points discussed above – illustrates how when we assume indigenous communities are getting the help they need, we only leave them more vulnerable to going unnoticed. 

There are signs of progress. With All In: The Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness announced in December 2022, the government acknowledges the work to be done both nationally and specifically to improve conditions on tribal lands. The intent is to “ensure state and local communities have sufficient resources and guidance to build the effective, lasting systems required to end homelessness.” One of its four main strategies: Increase access to federal housing and homelessness funding for AI/AN communities living on and off tribal lands. 

While long-term solutions are put in place, Pallet bridges the gap with immediate transitional housing and connection to wrap-around social services – a proven model for success. At the end of 2022, we built a shelter village on the Tulalip Tribal Reservation in Washington state – a good example of a solution tailored to its community. The Tulalip Tribe will run it with the ability to provide culturally appropriate resources. We know there’s no one-size-fits all approach to solving homelessness. But when advocates can create an ecosystem of support such as this, there’s potential for great progress. 

6 impacts of homelessness unique to indigenous communities

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